Monday, June 30, 2008

Scientific Peer Review versus Science Advice

Both scientific peer review panels and scientific advisory panels involve scientists providing advice. So what is the difference?

The peer review process ideally (in my opinion) involves a group of working scientists providing advice on scientific issues similar to those on which they themselves are working. Often a well structured peer review panel involves scientists with slightly differing specializations chosen so that their combined expertise encompasses all aspects of the issue under review. Of course there are a lot of details that have to be worked out to get high quality peer review, but the process must involve disinterested review by real peers in the sense of scientists with directly relevant scientific experience and expertise.

I am thinking of scientific advice such as that provided by the U.S. National Science Board (which provides its advice to the National Science Foundation) or the President's Council of Science Advisors. In such panels, scientists provide their advice on issues of national policy which transcend their specific scientific expertise. Ideally, such a panel is asked to advise and restricts its advice to those aspects of the policy for which their scientific training, expertise and experience provides a basis for more expert opinion than that of the the normal participants of the decision making process in which they function. Normally the members of such a panel have quite different scientific backgrounds one from another. Nor are they peers of a person submitting a proposal or a product for their review.

People being people, the participants in either a peer review panel or a scientific advisory panel will generally try to provide the advice requested from them, whether they are specially qualified to provide that advice or not. Indeed, they may go beyond their charter to advise on aspects of the issue on which they have no special expertise.

People being people, the participants in a panel may also be wrong, and the farther they stray from their areas of expertise the more likely their advice is to be problematical.

In both cases, panels might best be considered "nominal groups". That is, they will normally not have the time or use processes that allow them to debate to a true consensus. Thus I have found that it is often useful to record all the full range of opinions expressed by either panel.

An under explored area of both peer review and scientific advice is how to construct a process that effectively utilizes the advisory services of scientists incorporating that advice appropriately in decision making.

I note, for example, that the scientists serving on a scientific advisory panel are often quite senior people who spend at best a portion of their time doing research. They are generally people who have achieved a wide expertise in their field, and often are administrators of scientific or educational organizations, who have had responsibilities in their professional societies. Sometimes they have broad experience in public policy, and generally they are better informed on issues of public policy than is the general public. (The advice requested of the National Science Board is often closely related to the member's expertise in science and educational administration, while that asked of the President's science advisors deals with broader issues.)

Thus when science advisors stray beyond the specific scientific issues on which they are acknowledged experts, they may still have valuable insights and opinions.

As one deals with broader issues, scientific advice ought to be combined with the advice from other expert groups (diplomats, economists, military experts, political experts, etc.) in the decision making process. Given how hard it is simply to manage the scientific advice, the coordination of many sources of expertise in decision making on broader issues is truly daunting. It is easier to retrospectively criticize failures in the processes used in past decision that led to unfortunate decisions than to prospectively organize processes well for involving scientific expertise effectively for future decision making.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Thought on the Role of Culture in the Cold War on Terror

At the end of World War II, as the United States shifted from the war on Fascism to the Cold War, the U.S. government's attention was again directed to the cultural influence of communism. Here I am talking not so much about "high culture" of classical music, the legitimate theater and literature, but more about the popular culture represented by the political culture of labor unions and the widespread interest in government action to provide human services to the public (socialized medicine, education, etc.). The Soviet government financed efforts to disseminate communist thought in this popular culture, but efforts were also carried out by members of communist parties in other countries, by communists in influential positions such as the media. Notably, however, a large number of people who were not communists also espoused and disseminated views complementary with those of the Soviet Communists.

These days one thinks of the discredited Communism of the broken up Soviet Union and the escaped former Warsaw pact client states, of McCarthy and some of the abuses of the anti-communist programs but in the aftermath of the war Communists were taking over in Central and East Europe with the help of Soviet occupiers, Chinese Communists were waging a successful war against the nationalist government, and Communist movements in France, Italy and other European nations were seen as potentially taking office in free elections. In the United States many people felt that the failures in Capitalism that had been exposed by the Great Depression might be best solved through a movement to socialism, and recognized that Communists had born the brunt of the war against Fascism. The cultural importance of Communism appeared real and immediate.

While there was a U.A. governmental program seeking to identify and deal with Soviet agents, there was also a substantial program of cultural diplomacy. Surprisingly, much of that program was funded covertly by the CIA, and much of it involved sending the stars of high culture to Europe and other "battlegrounds" of the cultural war.

Much of the counterforce to communist cultural influence was non-governmental. Of course, religious bodies were involved in their own war on Communism. Moreover the American movie industry, motivated by the potential profits to be made from the international audience, was fighting its own cultural war, as would television and popular music industries. Indeed, American firm going multinational were spreading not only consumerism, but also a wide range of American cultural traits and values. Think of fast food such as Kentucky fried Chicken the the Big Mac. Entrepreneurial American educators were fighting for students and disseminating American created or organized knowledge products worldwide. American science, which dominated world science due both to American wealth and to the refuge that America offered to European scientists, also disseminated American pragmatism worldwide. One of the advantages of many of the non-governmental efforts was that their implementors were willing to live with and learn from the people they sought to influence. (This could be contrasted with too many governmental cultural diplomats who lived in American or Americanized enclaves, and who were not expected to learn about the cultures they were to influence.)

The concern of the Government, I guess, was that if there was widespread support for communist ideas, then Communist governments would come to power, and they would in turn support both Soviet agents and violence against the United States, as well of course as affect U.S. international economic interests.

The so-called War on Terrorism also has a cultural aspect. Islamic culture provides the milieu in which a small minority of fanatics have been influenced to form terrorist networks. The Islamic culture is widespread, and indeed is supported financially by state sources (albeit the most important of them not supporting terrorism).

Here too a wide variety of non-governmental elements are disseminating American culture in competition with aspects of Islamic culture, although the development and balance of the mix is different half a century later. Unfortunately, many of these seem to be counterproductive, generating more antagonism to American values than understanding of them.

The Bush administration in recent years has talked the talk of cultural diplomacy. It has perhaps failed to effectively utilize the multinational institutions that were created for the that purpose during the Cold War, and it seems to have been ham-handed (pun intended) in promoting American values. It too has perhaps been handicapped by the administration's confusion of high culture with the aspects of culture that are really important in combating the support for terrorism.

The most effective tool of public diplomacy in the Cold War may well have been the Marshall Plan, which indeed won the hearts and minds of people as a real expression of American concern for the needs of the suffering. It also was effective because it really strengthened the economic and political institutions that were opposed by militant Communism. Unfortunately, that progressive impulse is less powerful in American government and in its foreign policy than was the case in the Marshall and Kennedy years.

In the War on Terrorism, perhaps the most effective tool would be a really effective program of education for all, that both made peoples and countries sufficiently affluent to eschew violence, and which would promote an informed rationalism that would counteract the attitudes of mind that foster terrorist activities.

Worth thinking aboutI Perhaps a new administration can reinvigorate American cultural diplomacy and do more to undermine the aspects of Islamic societies that are supporting terrorist networks,

Bad Grades for White House Science Office

Source: "ScienceScope," Science magazine, Volume 320, Number 5883, Issue of 20 June 2008.

"The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) needs a 'critical upgrade' to more effectively tackle important science issues, says a report released this week by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In a 17 June briefing, the report's authors and other experts said that the current office, headed by John Marburger with a staff of 50 and a $5.2 million budget, is often ignored by the president and does a mediocre job of coordinating science policy among federal agencies. In that way, said consultant and co-author Mark Schaefer, it resembles science offices in previous Administrations. The report itself was more circumspect, calling for four assistants (up from two) who are confirmed by the Senate, offices in the Old Executive Office Building adjacent to the West Wing (OSTP currently sits in another building slightly farther away), and more face time with the next president.

"'If you're not able to forge the relationships in the inner sanctuary, … you can't get stuff done,' said Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness and a former OSTP staffer. But Marburger calls the additional top staff 'management overkill' and says the report's recommendation to give his office more clout by making it a Cabinet-level agency 'in my experience would not be necessary.'"

Comment: Are the Republicans worse in the use of science advice than the Democrats? While the White House post of Science Advisor was established by President Eisenhower, it was abolished in the Nixon administration. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment was created by the Democratic Congress in 1972, but abolished by the Republican Congress in 1995. The Bush administration has been at war with the scientific community in areas such as evolutionary theory, reproductive biology related research, climate change, and environmental regulations, and thus unlikely to have used scientific advice well where it most needed it. JAD

Groups are more accurate than individuals

I just read "Psychology: The crowd within" in the June 26th edition of The Economist. Statisticians have recognized for more than a century that the average of a number of independent measurements of a value are expected to be a more accurate estimate of that value than a single estimate. Psychologists have observed for a century the odd fact that similarly aggregating a large number of guesses of a quantity (such as the weight of a pig seen at a county fair) will be more be more accurate than the average individual person's guess.

The Economist describes a new research result as follows:
The two researchers asked 428 people eight questions drawn from the “CIA World Factbook”: for example, “What percentage of the world’s airports are in the USA?” Half the participants were unexpectedly asked to make a second, different guess immediately after they completed the initial questionnaire. The other half were asked to make a second guess three weeks later.

Dr Vul and Dr Pashler found that in both circumstances the average of the two guesses was better than either guess on its own. They also noticed that the interval between the first and second guesses determined how accurate that average was. Second guesses made immediately improved accuracy by an average of 6.5%; those made after three weeks improved the accuracy by 16%.

Even after three weeks, the result is still only one-third as good as the wisdom of several different people. But that this happens at all raises questions about “individuality” within an individual. If guesses can shift almost at random, where are they coming from?
Comment: This suggests that the social construction of knowledge is important in a very deep way. Of course it seems obvious that when people can discuss an issue, comparing and reviewing the quality of data and analyses, they may be expected (under the right circumstances) to come to better communal understanding of that issue than they might be leaving it to individual unaided judgments. So too, in a community in which many individuals independently try different ways of doing the same thing, observation of which ones have success will lead to the diffusion of successful innovations. This research, however, suggests that people may see things better collectively (or repetitively) than individually. JAD

Galaxy Zoo

Source: "Astronomy: Stars in their eyes," The Economist, June 26th 2008.

There are several examples in which networks of very large numbers of personal computers have been networked, using time donated by their owners to solve computationally intensive scientific problems. Galaxy Zoo goes further using the Internet to allow large numbers of amateur astronomers to search the massive data set being developed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

This seems very important to me. It reminds me of the participation of thousands of bird watchers to do counts of birds to provide information on their population dynamics. Indeed, it might be comparable to the use of local informants by systematic biologists to help them locate species of plants and animals and to describe their behavior. What is new is the use of social networking ideas to link large numbers of interested (but not necessarily formally trained) people to aid trained scientists is their work.

Indeed, the idea seems similar in some ways to Wikipedia, in which an online community of constantly shifting membership has created a huge and important knowledge base (which I use all the time).

Searching digital imagery of the skies taken at very great resolution for objects that are "unusual" is something that can better be done by human eyes and minds than by computer programs. How do you program a search for "the unusual"?

It will be interesting to observe how many other scientists and knowledge workers can develop similar online communities of knowledge working volunteers to accomplish important work for the public good!

Have you heard this one?

A reporter for a U.S. paper sees a man rescue a little girl being attacked by a dog by grabbing the animal by the throat and throttling it. He rushes up to the man and says, "that was wonderful. Tomorrow you will see it written up in the paper with a headline 'Local hero rescues tot by subduing ferocious beast.'"

The man responds, "thank you very much, but I am just visiting the city." The reporter then says, "in that case, the headline will read 'American rescues little girl.'"

The man again responds, "but I am not an American, I come from the Middle East." The reporter then tells him, "in that case, the headline will read 'Terrorist strangles family pet.'"

Numbers Count (if we are to understand Bush's policy)

Phillip Bobbitt, the author of Terror and Consent : The Wars for the Twenty-First Century points out that the number of American deaths from terrorism are on the same order of magnitude as those from lightning strikes or eating peanuts. Worldwide deaths from terrorism are less than deaths in the bathtub.

The so called "war on terrorism" is not funded as if it were a war, is not manned as were wars of the past, is not authorized in our political system as a war. In another context he comments that we need new words, but tend to recycle existing words with new meanings.

Friday, June 27, 2008

You won't believe this one!

According to the Chattanoogan
Sens. John Kerry, Bob Corker, and Sheldon Whitehouse announced on Friday the passage of their legislation to remove former South African President Nelson Mandela from the terror watch list. The bill grants the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the authority to waive U.S. travel restrictions on President Mandela and other members of the African National Congress.
89 year old Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela is one of the world’s strongest voices for human dignity and courage in the face of oppression. He and other members of African National Congress have remained on terror watch lists for activities they conducted against South Africa’s apartheid regime decades ago.

Kerry said when introducing the legislation:
"The idea that he’d be on our government’s terror watch list is deplorable. No bureaucratic snafu can excuse this international embarrassment, and we need to fix this policy now."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Measuring teacher performance

I have been thinking about the problem of how one might use student test results to help measure the performance of teachers. I just want to focus on one small element of the problem. I realize that it is very, very difficult to construct tests that measure the teacher's contribution to the students' ability to think analytically and creatively, or the teacher's motivation of students to embark on a vigorous course of lifelong learning. Indeed, I recognize that providing incentives to teachers who get their students to do well on tests that measure (or mis-measure) only part of the benefits of their courses may well bias their work and diminish the overall performance of the teachers (and students). I even realize how difficult it is to construct tests that effectively measure facts learned and techniques mastered by the students. But I just want to post on the quantitative approach to measuring teacher impact on student achievement.

If you assume that a teacher teachers something between 100 and 150 students in the course of a semester, then test results should provide some information about the teacher's performance. Of course, one should not assume that when students perform well on tests it is because their teachers did their job well that semester. Indeed, very good students from families that value education, in classes filled with equally good peers, who were taught well in previous years by other teachers may do quite well on a test after a semester taught by a very poor teacher.

How about an approach in which each student's test scores are predicted based on that student's previous test results and other variables independent of the current teacher, such as the scores of classmates on previous tests, the socio economic status of parents, and an indicator of the school facility quality. Then the teacher impact might be identified with the distribution of student test scores around their predicted values. Statistical tests could be applied to discover if the teachers students did better or worse on average than expected. Indeed, the distribution could be useful in discovering whether the teacher was favoring good students or students with weak performance, or indeed teaching to the average student and neglecting the needs of those on either end of the continuum.

My thinking was occasioned by a local story about a school system that is planning to provide bonuses to teachers it judges to have performed well based in part on student test results. In such a scheme, it would seem more fair to reward teachers whose students's results were (statistically) significantly better than expected.

There remain a bunch of issues. What happens if a teachers' students do well in one subject and poorly in another? Should success in bringing weak students up to average performance or success in bringing strong students to even greater success be more rewarded? Is success in mathematics and science worth more than success in civics and history? Indeed, the analysis of these issues might be more important in informing teachers and students about what the system feels to be important than the test based reward system itself.

There is also a psychological effect that comes from teachers knowing that their performance is being measured and that an attempt will be made to reward the best teachers, That effect may be beneficial even if the process of making those awards is faulty. Indeed, if one believes in the use of quantitative techniques to measure student and teacher performance, it makes sense also to use quantitative techniques to measure the value of the system used to reward high-performance teachers. One would hope that the average test results would go up with the system, as compared with previous test results and the results in control schools or national averages.

More on the White House Bowderization of the EPA Report

Yesterday I posted on a New York Times story of the White House refusing to open an email from EPA as part of its strategy to bowlderize a report required by the Congress and Supreme Court on control of greenhouse gases. Today the Washington Post has a complementary story which goes over the same ground but adds:
"The White House has found EPA's draft finding to be radioactive in three key areas," said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. "It validates the approval of California's waiver to regulate greenhouse gases from motor vehicles. It demonstrates that the Transportation Department's proposed fuel economy standards fall far short of what is technologically feasible and cost-effective. And it makes a strong case supporting how the existing Clean Air Act can be used to regulate greenhouse gases."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bush White House Strikes Again

Source: "White House Refused to Open Pollutants E-Mail," by FELICITY BARRINGER, The New York Times, June 25, 2008.

In 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA was required to determine whether greenhouse gases represent a danger to health or the environment.
This week, more than six months later, the E.P.A. is set to respond to that order by releasing a watered-down version of the original proposal that offers no conclusion. Instead, the document reviews the legal and economic issues presented by declaring greenhouse gases a pollutant.

Over the past five days, the officials said, the White House successfully put pressure on the E.P.A. to eliminate large sections of the original analysis that supported regulation, including a finding that tough regulation of motor vehicle emissions could produce $500 billion to $2 trillion in economic benefits over the next 32 years. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Apparently, to compound malevolence with fecklessness, the White House
refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened.
The NYT further reports that
White House pressure to ignore or edit the E.P.A.’s climate-change findings led to the resignation of one agency official earlier this month: Jason Burnett, the associate deputy administrator. Mr. Burnett, a political appointee with broad authority over climate-change regulations, said in an interview that he had resigned because “no more constructive work could be done” on the agency’s response to the Supreme Court.
The
chairman of the Council of Environmental Quality, James Connaughton, said a “train wreck” would result if regulations to control greenhouse gases were authorized piecemeal under laws like the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Comment: Better perhaps a train wreck than the disaster we face from global warming. JAD

Does U.S. Participation in UNESCO Reduce U.S. Sovereignty

There seems to be a misperception in some circles that U.S. membership in international organizations such as UNESCO reduces national sovereignty. See for example this article which states:
direct sovereign control by the United Nations is not the issue. The issue lies in UN program mandates and implementation and how these programs link to other treaties and agreements, which, if accepted by Congress, could lead to direct loss of sovereignty. When an international treaty or agreement is signed, we agree to the terms and conditions of the agreements, and by default we have ceded a portion of our national sovereignty in order to meet those terms and conditions. And while the agreements do not specifically state that the United Nations has direct sovereignty, they do permit "partnerships" and other forms of cooperation between the US and the UN that provide the UN access to the sovereign policy decision making process of the United states in direct conflict with the Consititution (sic) of the United States.
The same article states with respect to two important programs of UNESCO:
Documents concerning these programs specifically state that each nation maintains its own sovereignty. Furthermore, there is no direct evidence that UNESCO, in which both programs reside at the international level, has ever directly dictated national policy concerning any Biosphere Reserve or World Heritage Site in the United States.
There is a tiny exception that the authors don't seem to recognize, which is that when the executive branch of the government agreed to join UNESCO and gets Congressional approval, it accepts the conditions of the organization that it will give notice before withdrawing (again) from the organization and will pay the assessed membership contributions while a member. Of course, the Congress must appropriate the funds to pay the dues and it frequently chooses to allow very large arrears to accumulate of unpaid dues.

It is true that UNESCO is the venue in which a number of conventions (multinational treaties) are negotiated. If the U.S. government chooses to ratify a convention, then it does agree to abide then the government does agree to abide by its terms. Of course the U.S. government has broken the terms of many treaties that it has signed in the past. Consider those with native American tribes for example. So even that concern might be overstated. However, treaties are ratified by the Congress only when the majority of its members believe that the benefits to be gained by the United States outweigh the obligations that the nation is incurring.

Note that the Constitution specifically states (Article II, Section 2) that the president "shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur." Thus the founding fathers recognized that the government would need and want to negotiate treaties, and that power has not been eliminated in more than 200 years.

Basically, UNESCO neither seeks nor has any capacity to interfere with the sovereignty of the United States, and has never done so. It does serve occasionally as a venue in which conventions are negotiated, and the United States government has sometimes ratifies these conventions, such as UNESCO's international copyright convention. When our representatives decide to ratify (or not to ratify) a convention they are performing a duty set forth in the Constitution.

The important point that seems to be missed by people worried about the possible loss of sovereignty by the United States is that the country does not have sovereign control over everything it needs. Take biodiversity, and a single example of the genetic diversity needed to assure that plant breeders can continue to produce crop varieties to improve productivity of American agriculture and protect us from new crop pests and diseases. The genetic diversity we need for each crop species is to be found in the wild species from which the domestic species was derived. Those centers of diversity are to be found in the Middle East, Asia, and South and Central America but not in the United States (except for a few species such as cranberries and sunflowers). It is only through international agreements that have put the collections of seeds in a commons for use by all countries that we have access to the genetic resources that have already been collected. UNESCO's biosphere reserve program offers the best possibility that I know of to develop the landscape management approaches that will be required to protect the wild species in their natural habitat against the pressures that are sure to come from increasing population and increasing economic demand for land resources.

"To Read or Not To Read"

A couple of years ago the National Endowment for the Arts published a study of reading habits in America. Subtitled "A Question of National Consequence", the study concludes:
• Americans are spending less time reading.
• Reading comprehension skills are eroding.
• These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.
I too find the decrease in time reading to be of concern. However, it seems to me that reading is an intermediate value. A more fundamental question is whether Americans can find, evaluate and utilize information better now than they could in the past.

The Internet changes society. It makes sense that people spend time on the Internet that they would once have spent reading. Indeed, people might well spend less time internalizing information since now they can far more quickly and easily access the information that they need from the web. On demand information reduces the need for an internally stored stock of information.

Ideally, of course, people should focus on analysis and decision making quality more if they are memorizing less. Perhaps that is happening, and Americans note frequently that people in developing nations (which are less "wired") have better trained memories and spend more time in school memorizing answers and less time learning how to analyze information.

Of course, this is all relative. Polls and indeed election results indicate that too many Americans don't make good decisions based on solid analysis of high quality information.

Rep. Donna Edwards swearing-in ceremony


Donna Edwards now represents Maryland's 4th District in the House of Representatives. Check out her Congressional virtual office.

Architecture forD Humanity

Check out this interesting non-governmental organization that uses a network of professional architects to bring better buildings and designs to poor people in the developing world! You can donate online for specific building projects.

AfH's design for the Nadukuppam Colony
Community Center in Tamil Nadu, India

Shortage of Engineering Managers in Defense Industries

Source: "Top Engineers Shun Military; Concern Grows," PHILIP TAUBMAN, The New York Times, June 25, 2008.

I quote:
Over the last decade, even as spending on new military projects has reached its highest level since the Reagan years, the Pentagon has increasingly been losing the people most skilled at managing them. That brain drain, military experts like Mr. Kaminski say, is a big factor in a breakdown in engineering management that has made huge cost overruns and long delays the maddening norm.

Mr. Kaminski’s generation of engineers, which was responsible for many of the most successful military projects of the 1970s and ’80s, is aging, and fewer of the nation’s top young engineers, software developers and mathematicians are replacing them. Instead, they are joining high-tech companies and other civilian firms that provide not just better pay than the military or its contractors, but also greater cachet — what one former defense industry engineer called “geek credit.”
Commment: The problem is probably not that good technical people are going into firms serving the civil needs of the country, but rather that we are not training enough people to meet both civil and military needs. That problem may be compounded since we can not fill the sensitive military systems management needs with foreign nations. JAD

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Personalized medicine: Where does all the computer power go?

According to The Economist, we are now seeing buyouts which combine firms producing gene sequencing machines and those providing diagnostic services based on individual genomes. The idea is that health services will be an important market for information as to which drugs will or will not work in which patients. That knowledge can not only make prescriptions more efficacious, but may well also save the service providers a lot of money which would otherwise be spent on ineffective remedies and treatment of drug reactions.
The cost of decoding someone's genome is likely to fall from $50,000 now to $100 by 2015 or 2020, making all kinds of things possible—but only if the value of the genetic information is far greater than it is today.

ICTs Can Help Prevent Global Warming


The Economist article is based on a study done for the Global e-Sustainability Initiative.

Where Does All the Computer Power Go?

The Economist has an article in the current edition (June 19th, 2008) on the proliferation of robots. It states that there are now more than one million robots in operation worldwide.
Today, thanks to the relentless increase in the power of computing, the latest robots are being fitted with sophisticated systems that enable them to see, feel, move and work together. Robot engineers call this “mechatronics”: the union of mechanics, optics, electronics, computers and software. Some factory robots are now smart enough to be released from their safety cages to work among humans. And as they become cleverer and more dexterous, they are starting to move from factories to offices and homes......

Among a bewildering array of robots that can now do most jobs in a factory there were also machines that could fly, fetch, carry, talk and even perform surgery (see article).........Four trends were on show (last week at the Automatica robotics show): robots are rapidly becoming more responsive, cheaper, simpler to program and safer.

Public Intellectuals

The annual Foreign Policy/Prospect list of the "World's Top Public Intellectuals" is out, and the top ten, for the first time, is composed entirely of Muslims. The list was produced after some 500,000 votes were received drawing from a draft list of 100 people created by the organizers.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Brain Mind Dicotomy

The Economist suggests this week that there is new evidence from brain imaging for this effect, in which people value more the things that they possess than those which they do not. The article cites results from brain imaging studies, from studies in non-human primates, and from reasoning from evolutionary theory. This is another example of the brain functioning less rationally than the mind thinks it functions.

Incidentally, the Washington Post today has an article with new evidence that the brains of homosexuals respond in some ways more like those of heterosexuals of the opposite sex than like those of members of the same sex. More evidence that homosexuality is a function of the way the brain is wired rather than a choice to act in ways opposed to the way the brain inclines one to act.

How important is happiness?

The Washington Post today has an article based on the work of Daniel Kahneman suggesting that Americans in higher income groups spend less time relaxing and having fun than do people in lower income groups, and therefore they are happier.

The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.
John F. Kennedy
Of course, it is hard to be happy if you are ill, in pain, or suffering from the extreme aspects of poverty. But there seems to be a fair amount of evidence that once basic needs are satisfied, there is little gain in happiness with added income or wealth.

Still, I find it hard to accept that happiness is identified with having fun and relaxing.

Are there not two kinds of happiness. On the one hand there is a short term emotion which we all know, when things are going especially well and we feel satisfaction. A child born, an obstacle overcome, a friend who has succeeded. There is also a happiness as a more general satisfaction with life, which I think may come from overcoming expectations "of more" and satisfaction with what is, what has been, and what is likely to be.

It seems to me it is pleasant to be happy, and perhaps fortunate to be happy, but one might better aspire to be useful.

A Thought About Prejudice

I read a couple of days ago that something like 30 percent of Americans admit to being prejudiced. The good news is that the percentage has gotten so low, and that we now use the word "admit" when in the past prejudice was often proudly proclaimed. The mixed news is that prejudiced people are likely to lie about their prejudice; they realize that it is socially unacceptable to admit prejudice, but they can vote that prejudice in the privacy of the voting booth. The bad news is that we are not aware of many (most?) of the prejudices we hold. I would guess that everyone who votes acts in unreasoned ways that give advantages to some groups and disadvantages to others which I would find unfair.

First of all, it is adaptive to behave in this way. We read that some products manufactured in China have been withdrawn after a few cases of illness have been traced back to those products, and we increase the caution we use in buying products made in China. I recall in the 1950's, as Japan was creating a world class manufacturing industry based on what was then cheap labor, it too had a reputation for shoddy products and we consumers required price breaks to justify the added perceived risk that Japanese products would not last. Today, of course, Japanese products often command a higher price because of their reputation for high quality. While these kinds of heuristic product prejudices can lead to errors in consumer choice, they are obviously often useful.

My point is that they are mentally similar to the prejudices we form about groups of people. I was recently on a grand jury and asked to review a large number of charges of felonies. I live in an area in which perhaps one-third of the citizens are foreign born, and a comparable people are from racial minorities. Yet it certainly seemed that minorities were the majority of the people charged with felonies, and especially violent street crimes. It is rational to be more concerned with ones personal safety when confronted with a group of young men from a minority ethnic group than when confronted with an equal number of older, white women.

I suspect that cultures have evolved to inculcate such habits and indeed that they may be instinctive in our species. The good news is that we can rationally decide to substitute evidence-evidence based decision making for prejudice based reflexive action, and that we increasingly do so for important decisions. The bad news is that we are not as rational as we think we are.

I recall studies that find that reviewers of scientific papers are more likely to recommend them for publication if they are signed John Smith rather than Mary Smith, even though the reviewers would deny gender bias and would indeed not be aware of that bias. I think Hilary Clinton was the subject of gender bias as she pioneered the role of major candidate for president as a woman, and I think the wives of both candidates will in the next few months be similarly subjected to gender biases, in part because they are common and involuntary, and in part because professional politicians have discovered that pandering to prejudice can be effective in advancing a candidacy and prefer winning to ethical behavior.

Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze

David's portrait of Marie-Anne and her husband.

This is a lady who probably needs a good biography.

Married at 13 to Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, who was known as the father of modern chemistry, she not only assisted in his laboratory but translated scientific reports from English for his benefit. Lavoisier who was appointed gunpowder administrator under the French monarch, went on among many other accomplishments to establish the finest chemical laboratory of his time, and to coin the names for oxygen and hydrogen. Marie received formal training in chemistry from Jean-Baptiste Bucquet and Philippe Gingembre. Trained as an artist by the great French artist Jacques-Louis David, she illustrated the reports of Lavoisier's research with drawings of his experiments. After Lavoisier was executed during the French Revolution, she retrieve his laboratory notes and published the final documentation of his work, Mémoires de Chimi.

She was later courted by Pierre-Samuel duPont de Nemours, economist, friend of Thomas Jefferson, founder of the American Dupont family and namesake of the Dupont Company, but married instead Benjamin Thompson. He too had an amazing life, born in Massachusetts, he served in the state militia and in the British Army, was knighted by Great Britain, served as Minister of War of Bavaria, was made "Count Rumford", and was himself a distinguished scientist (also an expert on gunpowder who invented the wax candle and did pioneering work on thermodynamics).

Two hundred years ago, her contributions to science would not have been formally acknowledged, but one suspects that they were significant. In any case, she lived in exciting times, and was clearly at the center of the action!

Read this transcript of a radio program about her.

Check out her entry in Wikipedia.

There is a new biography of Lavoisier by Madison Scott Bell which should be good, and a new fictionalized biography of Count Rumford by Nicolas Delbanco which is getting some publicity. Someone should do a biography of their wife, or perhaps a miniseries if they can find an adequately beautiful actress!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Edwards Wins!

The good news is that Donna Edwards won the special election yesterday for Maryland's 4th Congressional District with an estimated 80 percent of the vote.

Bad news:
  • In this critical moment in the nation's legislative history, only five percent of the District's voters turned out for the election. In my precinct we had six percent turnout, which is not anything to be proud of!
  • Some 3,500 voters cast their votes for Peter James. According to the Washington Post, James "attempts to limit his interactions with government and his personal debt by having no driver's license, bank account, home mortgage or credit card." Thus James does not seem to be a candidate appropriate to represnt our District in Congress.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Amazon.com: Please Be More Open to Small Publishers

The New York Times today has a story explaining that Amazon.com has disabled the "Buy Now" button for a number of publishers who are disputing Amazon's distribution of revenues from online sales of their books.

Small publishers are an important resource, and a resource that is increasingly important as Amazon allows readers to reach further down into the available resources to purchase less popular titles. The books with small audiences of specialists can be very important for the function of our economy and our society. They also are likely to be more risky to publish, and thus to warrant a higher profit margin for publishers if they turn out to be successful.

I hope that Amazon.com will listen to its customers, reconsider its action, and return to the negotiating table with these publishers who have run afoul of its wrath.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

ARISE: Advancing Research in Science and Engineering


The ARISE report addresses two issues central to the vitality of America's research enterprise:
1) the support of early-career investigators; and
2) the encouragement of high-risk, high-reward research. Such support and encouragement will foster a new generation of scientists and stimulate the daring investigations that will generate competitive advantage in a global economy.
The report is the product of a distinguished committee and is published by The American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Turn Out to Vote for Donna Edwards on Tuesday

There is a special election on Tuesday (June 17th) for the 4th Congressional District of Maryland. I hope you fellow 4th districter's will join me in voting for Donna Edwards. She has already won the Democratic nomination for the post for the November election, and the Democratic nomination for this special election to replace the outgoing Representative for the rest of the year.

Donna is a great candidate, as you can see if you play the video below, from her speech to the SEIU International Convention.

Why Almost Everyone Should Vote Democrat to Vote Her Pocketbook

Source: "For Richer or for Poorer: Inequality widens under Republicans and shrinks under Democrats" a review by Dan Balz in The Washington Post (June 15, 2008) of UNEQUAL DEMOCRACY: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age by Larry M. Bartels.

Does the U.S. Constitutional System Scale

When the United States Constitution was written, the population of the country was about three million, and voting was essentially restricted to white men who owned property. The population has increased 100 fold and suffrage has been extended to all adults and the economic, military and political power of the nation has similarly increased. Why should we assume that the indirect election of presidents and direct election of Representatives and Senators created 200 years ago scales up to to the current national needs?

There are of course signs that problems exist, such as the difficulties in the current primary process for selection of presidential candidates, election fraud charges, the failure of the process in the 2000 presidential election, the fact that most people who might vote either do not register or if registered do not vote, and the ignorance of the average citizen about the major issues faced by the nation.

We could move toward direct elections of the president, and we could unify the process for party selection of presidential candidates. We could in fact add a new level of representative government, selecting electors from the population and asking that they fully prepare to elect members of Congress and the President. Our current knowledge of statistics suggests that we can very accurately predict the outcome of an election with a relatively small sample of the voters, and we know that the current electoral processes not only are open to the efforts of the unscrupulous to exclude some kinds of people but are simply inacurate (e.g. chads sometimes interfere with the count of a vote in electro-mechanical card readers).

Perhaps we could do better by a well thought out system, both in the more thoughtful selection of better representatives and indeed in giving the average citizen the feeling that the process is responsive to his/her interests and is fair.

"Perspectives on U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology"

"Is the United States in danger of losing its competitive edge in science and technology (S&T)?" RAND convened a meeting, held on November 8, 2006, to review evidence on this question as presented by experts from academia, government, and the private sector. "The papers presented at the meeting addressed a wide range of issues surrounding the United States' current and future S&T competitiveness, including science policy, the quantitative assessment of S&T capability, globalization, the rise of Asia (particularly China and India), innovation, trade, technology diffusion, the increase in foreign-born S&T students and workers in the United States, new directions in the management and compensation of federal S&T workers, and national security and the defense industry. These papers provide a partial survey of the facts, challenges, and questions posed by the potential erosion of U.S. S&T capability." Edited by Titus Galama and James Hosek, RAND, 2007.

Miller Calls on DHS to Withdraw Inappropriate Classification of Students as “Security Threats”

Investigations & Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC) has asked Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to rescind the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) determination that foreign graduate students in oceanography pose a “security threat” because they applied for a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) while holding a student visa, a category not eligible for the TWIC.

“The TSA has admitted that these students do not fall into any of the categories it uses to determine security threats, but it inexplicably refuses to change its determination,” Miller said. “I do not understand why these students weren’t simply told that they were not eligible for the TWIC and allowed to withdraw their applications.” Miller said that the students, who are legally in the United States, were now afraid to leave the country or travel for personal or academic purposes because of the official determination that they are a “security threat.”

Randomized Trials in Development Economics

The Economist has an interesting article this week about the debate going on among practitioners of development evaluation over the importance of “randomised evaluations” in which different policies — to boost school attendance, say — are tested by randomly assigning them to different groups. There seems to be agreement that randomized evaluations are useful for the study of the effectiveness of specific interventions, but that they do not help much with the study of macro economic policies nor of institution building efforts. Indeed, there are many problems of finding representative situations in which to conduct such trials which are such that the results may be expected to predict the utility of the innovations when scaled up to a national or regional scale. The article sites a recent Brookings Institute meeting.

The Brookings Institute seminar titled "What Works in Development? Thinking Big and Thinking Small".

Social bookmarks

Let me remind you that I have posted many bookmarks to resources which I found useful and/or interesting, many of which are relevant to this blog.

Click here to go to those social bookmarks.

I have also posted several hundred bookmarks specifically on UNESCO that might be of interest.

"The Growth Report: Strategies for Sustained Growth and Inclusive Development"

The Commission on Growth and Development brought together twenty-one leading practitioners from government, business and the policymaking arenas, mostly from the developing world. The Commission was chaired by Nobel Laureate Michael Spence and is sometimes called the Spence Commission. Its report issued in 2008 has been described as providing the basis for a new consensus of development economists. The report website provides not only a downloadable version of the report, but information on the Commission and a video of the launch event.

The report notes that a handful of countries have managed to achieve historically unparalleled growth for decades, proving it is possible to do so. The authors suggest that the recipe for sustained rapid economic growth will differ from country to country, depending on the local circumstances in each country. However, good policies and institution building are important. They recognize the importance of investments in human capital as well as infrastructure.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Capital flows to developing countries


"Net private-capital flows to developing countries reached a record $1.03 trillion in 2007, a big jump from the $760 billion recorded in 2006. However, much of the increase reflected the depreciation of the dollar against most other currencies. As a share of developing countries' GDP, net inflows went up from 6.7% in 2006 to 7.5% last year, a much more modest rise."

Did you know?

Source: "Human trafficking: A horrible business," The Economist, June 14th 2008.

"CONSIDERING it is a business that has provoked wars in centuries past, scant attention is paid to the modern slave trade. But one way to track the trade in people is the recently released annual report on trafficking in persons from America’s State Department. And it makes for gloomy reading. Though there have been improvements of late, the numbers of people involved are still appallingly high. Approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders each year and millions more are traded domestically. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are at least 12.3m people in forced labour at any one time, including sexual exploitation, as a result of trafficking."

The Philosophical Basis of Cultural Property

At the meeting of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO last month a recommendation was made that UNESCO encourage countries to make a practice of long term loans of their movable cultural property to responsible institutions in other countries. Loans of at least a decade could recognize the ownership of the country making the loan while allowing the citizens of the country receiving the loan to benefit from the study of the artifacts.

I am not a philosopher, but it seems to me that it is important to think about the philosophical basis of cultural property. It also seems to me that the age of an item must be taken into account in terms of its property rights.

The creator of a painting, sculpture, or other item of movable cultural property seems to have a natural right to his/her own creation, unless it is created as a work for hire. There would also seem to be a utilitarian basis to grant the creator the right to choose how to transfer ownership and to benefit from the value of his/her creation. Such ownership rights would seem likely to encourage people to create new works and to disseminate them to those who value the works. Indeed, granting property rights to those who purchase works of art from their creators would also seem to have instrumental value as a means of promoting creativity and the support of creative individuals.

Modern cultural products are to some degree not only the products of their individual creators but also of the society from which they come. While we have a myth of the artist as outsider, frequently creators of cultural products have been the beneficiaries of financial support or supporting services from government, the private sector or civil society of the countries in which they live. Again, there would seem to be some natural right of the creator's compatriots to benefit from those creations, and indeed a utilitarian argument that only if compatriots are to benefit will they adequately support the creative process.

The situation is different for antique movable cultural property, in my opinion. Take for example the items from Byzantine society or the Middle Ages. The societies from which they came have disappeared, and often the people living in the geographic locations in which those societies flourished are the descendants of peoples who later moved into the areas, and indeed are quite distinct culturally from the creators of the items. I find little sympathy for the position that the possession of the geographic area in which an object was created provides a natural right right to that cultural property.

Of course, many important items of movable cultural property have been moved, and are now in the possession of institutions in countries which obtained them by conquest or purchase. Again, it is hard to see that they are in place by natural right, although in some cases they have been held in place for centuries.

An argument can be made that rights to cultural property accrue to those who are willing and able to take on the responsibility for the safeguarding and for sharing them. So too, rights may be created among men and among countries by negotiation and agreement. UNESCO's conventions on movable cultural property clearly create a moral as well as a legal basis for ownership of cultural properties.

If we can differentiate the ancient from the nearly antique, then the natural rights to property by possession of the areas in which they were created are weaker still. As objects of ancient cultures are literally unearthed, it would seem that rights can be assigned. I would suggest that the utilitarian arguments should have some value. Legitimate finders, such as professional archaeologists should have rights because they have the skills to protect that which they find, and because granting them rights will encourage the exploration of the ancient past. So too, utilitarian calculations would seem to have a role in deciding how to deal with grave robbers and other illegitimate finders of ancient cultural objects; rights should be allocated so as to discourage grave robbing, while protecting as much as possible the objects recovered by the grave robbers who can not be dissuaded from that occupation. So too, the power of states to control the excavation of sites within their own borders must be recognized, and utilitarian calculations applied to the policies dealing with their rights established by both physical power and the rights attributed to sovereign powers.

UNESCO has popularized the concept of "world heritage", and there are items of movable cultural property that would seem to be so important in cultural history as to suggest that all people share a natural right to benefit from their study. I would think of the Mona Lisa or Michaelangelo's David as examples of such items, but there are many such objects from Asian and African cultures as well as European cultures, and some modern items of world heritage from all continents.

I like the concept that the warrants establishing intellectual property, especially copyright, should be limited in time, and that an artist's copy rights are not permanent. I suggest that with the Internet and with evolving technology that will eventually allow copies of objects to be made by digitally controlled desktop devices there will be much more done to allow people everywhere to study copies of items of world heritage. Putting the descriptions of such items in a commons seems to make a lot of sense.

There seems to be a general understanding that items of world heritage should not be private property. Governments have expropriated royal collections with the collapse of monarchies, putting the objects in museums. Those rich enough to purchase items of world heritage often feel that they should donate them to public institutions, and governments often establish incentives for them to do so. Thus there may well be an agreed natural right of the public to access to items of world heritage, and that to ensure such rights they should be held as property of state or civil society institutions.

Utilitarian arguments would seek agreements on the definition of cultural property which would serve to promote creativity, to promote the protection of items of cultural property, to promote the sharing of access to study and benefit from such items within the societies which they most benefit, and to promote the global access to study and benefit from items of world heritage.

I think the idea of long term loans of items of cultural property, which would separate the issue of ownership from the issues of access and short term control might be useful. I find the decision of the Afghan museum to send the treasures of Afghanistan on a world tour, recognizing that they could not safeguard them in the current political and security situation within Afghanistan was creative and forward thinking.

Perhaps there should be some international organizations that take ownership of cultural property of regional or global importance. To some degree, private museums can have this characteristic even though they have sites physically located in a single country. The United Nations family of organizations of course does have a significant collection of items of world heritage, but one that pales in comparison with the collections of some of their member states. Moreover, one must question the willingness of member states to provide adequate financing to such collections. Practicality has a place in the evaluation of ideologically defined solutions.

Framing the News

The Washington Post today reports following a phone call from Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D. and the Senate Budget Committee chairman), the chief executive of Countrywide Financial ordered that Conrad be granted a one point reduction in the mortgage rate on a $1.07 million mortgage on his vacation home in Bethany Beach, Del.

Lets think about that for a moment. The current interest rate for mortgages is about 6.25 percent. The monthly payment on a thirty year mortgage (principal plus interest) would be $6588.17. If the interest was instead 5.25 percent, the monthly interest would be $5908.58. Thus the one point break would generate a flow of benefits of $679.59 for thirty years.

The present value of that income for 30 years (assuming 6.25 percent interest rate) would be about $110 thousand.

Comment: Do you think the reader would have the same response to getting a one point break on a mortgage, or a donation of $110,000 in the form of an endowed 30 year annuity? As shown above, the two are essentially equivalent!

Moreover, that kind of "virtual income" would be worth considerably more that actual monetary payments in that it would not be taxed. (One hopes that the Internal Revenue Service does in fact impose taxes on Congressmen who are proven to have accepted such deals inappropriately comparable to the net present value of the discount they received.)

In fairness, the Washington Post acknowledges that Senator Conrad may in fact have paid more than the going rate for his mortgage, and recognizes that he and other legislators may in fact have done nothing wrong.
JAD

Friday, June 13, 2008

African Development

Source: "Is it Africa's Turn? Progress in the world's poorest region" by Edward Miguel, The Boston Review, MAY/JUNE 2008.

I quote:
After peaking around 1975, African per capita income steadily declined through 2000, with average living standards falling 20 percent. Kenya serves as a pretty close stand-in for the entire continent: the timing of its economic advance and decline differs only slightly, with incomes peaking slightly later. During the same period, two other once desperately poor regions carried out an economic transformation: Indian per capita incomes doubled and Chinese levels rose four-fold......

I am more concerned with what has gone right since 2000, the turnaround in economic performance that has lifted African per capita income levels close to their all-time highs. Africa’s recovery may still be modest by China and India’s standards (average annual per capita income growth for all sub-Saharan Africa has been at about 3 percent between 2000 and 2007), but it constitutes a clear break from the past, and it is now possible to wonder whether the terrible decades of war, famine, and despair are finally over. Several continent-wide trends suggest reasons to hope that they are.........


In the 1970s and ’80s most counties in Africa averaged democracy scores hovering around six, a level at which political freedoms are basically nonexistent, dissident speech is violently repressed, and elections—if they are even held—are mainly for show.

Starting in 1991, however, citizens in dozens of African countries fought for political change. Some were inspired by the freedom wave then sweeping the Soviet bloc and the demise of Apartheid in South Africa. By 2007 the African Freedom House average had jumped to a four. Thus, the typical African country is still not as democratic as Sweden or India, but progress has been widespread and visible.

Comment: That good news might be a false prophecy if a global economic downturn occurs as seems quite possible. When the North sneezes, the South comes down with pneumonia!. JAD

Rote Learning -- a thought

Jonathan Zimmerman, who is currently working in Ghana, writes in History News Network on his experience with rote learning. When several decades ago he was a Peace Corps Volunteer he accepted that PCVs should not try to fight the rote learning culture in the schools in which he taught, seeing that as a form of cultural imperialism. Now he finds that Ghanaians feel that rote learning is wrong and are looking for ways to modernize schooling, and feels he was wrong all those years ago.

I think that rote learning is embedded in the cultures of developing nations and not in that of the United States. My wife and I were talking today, wondering if that is not a result of different availability of information aids. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, even before Zimmerman, I came from a society that had maps and phone books as well as books and a lot of advertisements. I expected to be able to look up information that I needed, and to have my recollection reinforced frequently about sources of goods and services. I didn't expect to have to remember much. I did not have nearly as well developed a memory capacity as my father who had grown up in a much poorer and less "connected" Ireland.

Moving to live in a society that did not have the same information resources I was impressed by the well developed memories of my peers, but also frequently bored by the conversations that exchanged information that I expected to be easily available on demand. Of course, in the new society that information was not easily available. There were no local maps, no phone directories, and only the foreigners had lots of books.

Activate

ACTiVATE is a year-long program at the University of Maryland which trains women with significant technical or business experience to be entrepreneurs and to create start-up companies from inventions from Maryland research institutions and federal agencies. Admission to the program is competitive.

Thinking about Henry VIII

I have been reading Henry VIII: The King and His Court by Alison Weir. The subtitle is accurate, in that the book is not a history of Europe nor England during the Tudor epoch. Rather it is a book about the operation of the court during the time of Henry VIII. If you are writing about the time or if you are fascinating by the life style of the rich and famous, this is the book for you. Otherwise, it will tell you more about menus, clothes, and other life style choices than you probably want to know.

There are some interesting things. I learned that I had misunderstood the Reformation. I had thought of it as primarily about the creation of new churches in competition with the Roman Catholic church. Henry VIII, at least, did not see himself as starting a new church, and died believing himself to be a Catholic. If you think about it, there have been efforts to reform the Catholic church that include Vatican II, the creation of Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit orders, and many others which did not result in the creation of alternative structures. Indeed, there is a face-off between the Chinese government and the Vatican as to the power to appoint Bishops in China which is somehow reminiscent of the dispute between Henry VIII and the Pope.

I was trying to figure out how exceptional a man Henry VIII really was while reading the book. It seems clear that he was exceptional in that he was athletic, intelligent and learned. Weir includes many quotes from observers at the Court testifying to his outstanding qualities. But how much credence can we put in those reports?

Certainly the Court of Henry VIII was seeking to increase his prestige, and indeed he was capable of the most severe sanctions against those who challenged his majesty. He, like other monarchs, engaged in "progresses" traveling in state from town to town in order to impress his subjects with his wealth and power. It was a time in which the myth of the divine right of kings was widely promoted, and there . The King and his Court used conspicuous consumption as a means of distancing themselves from the commoners. They even promoted the position that the wealth of the king and his expensive Court were signs of the degree to which God favored his anointed king, and that his exceptional personal characteristics were similarly signs of divine favor.

I think the effect is not simply a sign of the ignorance of the Middle Ages, nor of an eccentricity of the English (who continue to accept and subsidize the wealth of a royal family which has exhibited all sorts of failings over the centuries). I have seen people react to candidates for high political office in this country with apparent idolatry. I also saw first hand the mystique of the presidency. Even today you find those who work in the White House seem to be enthralled by the President. On the one hand, we are social animals, and we pick up on the status attributed to a person by others in our and his/her surround. On the other hand, we deffer to the alphas in our surround, and the most alpha is the head of government and state in the most powerful nation in the world. I think we are likely also to be willing to attribute that person more stellar qualities than even those required to reach that exalted status.

Henry VIII unfortunately seemed to accept the impression he saw in those in his Court of himself as accurate. The romans had someone behind the emperor whispering that he was not a god. Not a bad idea! Except in our system the aid might whisper, "you ain't even as good as you think".

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Diagnosis is really bad in poor nations

Julianne Gilmore sent me a link to an article on the Marginal Revolution blog which in turn quotes Das, Hammer and Leonard's "The Quality of Medical Advice in Low-Income Countries".
...doctors in Tanzania complete less than a quarter of the essential checklist for patients with classic symptoms of malaria, a disease that kills 63,000-96,000 Tanzanians each year. The public-sector doctor in India asks one (and only one) question in the average interaction: "What's wrong with you?". In Paraguay, the amount of time a doctor spends with a patient has nothing to do with the severity of the patient's illness...these isolated facts represent common patterns...three years of medical school in Tanzania result in only a 1 percentage point increase in the probability of a correct diagnosis...One concern with measuring doctor effort through direct observation is that the doctor may work harder in the presence of the research team.
Comment: The first rule in medical diagnosis is not to ask for information you can't use. So part of the problem may be the lack of means to treat patients in Tanzania and other really poor countries.

Remember, most illness is self limiting. Moreover, lots there are very few things one can do for viral diseases in developing nations, and doctors are likely to prescribe a fairly broadband antibiotic for a bacterial disease, rather than wait for the specific diagnosis of the bacterial agent.

Still, the purpose of the visit is not per se to identify the disease but rather to decide what the patient should do about his illness. Thus frequently in the United States a general practitioner will refer a patient to a specialist without himself/herself making a definite diagnosis. If there are few alternatives available to the physician serving a very poor population, then the amount of information needed to select appropriately among them may be very limited.

So it may well be that the physicians serving the poor in poor countries are too poorly trained to diagnose accurately, or it may be that they are too overworked to use their training, but it is also possible that they have too few resources at their disposal to make it worthwhile to do a diagnosis that would meet the standards of practice in rich countries (or in rich communities in their own poor countries).

In the case of paramedicals, it has been recognized that there are lots of health problems that are very much alike from patient to patient, and that can be treated successfully in the community. Thus the training of paramedicals focuses on providing them with the tools to recognize when to treat and when to refer on to a physician, and to instill a few relatively simply algorithms for the diagnosis and prescription or treatment for common, simple illnesses that can be treated in the community.

Many years ago Abraham Flexner, who is credited with stimulating the reforms of medical education in the United States that eventually resulted in our modern expert physicians, recommended that China not try to train its own physicians to Western standards. He (correctly) recognized that better health results could be obtained by using China's resources in the early 20th century to provide less training to more practitioners, who would recognize only the more common conditions and who would treat only the more amenable ones of those diagnosed.

MoveOn.Org: Bush = McCain


Source: MoveOn.Org

"A static epidemic"

Improved estimates still show public health efforts have had little success controlling the number of new HIV infections in the US.

Source: Alix Morris, IAVI Report, VAX 6 (5), May 2008.

I quote extensively from the opening of this important report from the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative:
Twenty-seven years after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report detailing a mysterious cluster of pneumonia cases that were later attributed to AIDS, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States has grown to an estimated 1.2 million, according to the most recent figures (see www.cdc.gov).

The ballooning HIV prevalence in the US can be attributed to the dramatically waning morbidity and mortality associated with HIV/AIDS. Since the days when an AIDS diagnosis was a virtual death sentence, HIV-related deaths in the US have declined significantly—plummeting by more than 70% following the discovery of highly-active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Once the leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 24 and 44, HIV is now usually a chronic condition when managed effectively with a combination of antiretrovirals (ARVs) that act on the virus, or its target cells, in different ways.

But what disconcerts public health researchers is the latest surveillance data, which illustrates a static epidemic. In the US, the HIV incidence, or number of new HIV infections that occur per year, has not changed much since 1994. Despite continued efforts to improve education and promote effective and available interventions like condoms, public health agencies have had little success in controlling the number of new HIV infections over the last 15 years.

This worrisome trend will be highlighted in a much-anticipated surveillance report from the CDC that incorporates comprehensive data from state registries and a more accurate method of identifying recently HIV-infected individuals. This new methodology, known as serological testing algorithm for recent HIV seroconversion (STARHS) employs a combination of the normal test or assay for HIV infection, which detects antibodies against the virus, and a less sensitive or “detuned” assay. If antibodies against HIV are detectable by the normal assay, but not by the less sensitive one, researchers using the STARHS methodology conclude that this individual was recently infected with HIV because their antibody responses are not as strong.

The new HIV incidence figures, based on the STARHS method, were submitted to an academic journal last year by the CDC to make sure the methodology, emerging data, and conclusions were scientifically rigorous, and the agency says the data is still undergoing review. The new incidence estimates are widely expected to be announced sometime this year, and they are likely to show that the number of new HIV infections for 2006 was significantly higher—perhaps by as much as 20,000 infections—than the annual estimate of 40,000 new HIV infections per year repeatedly cited by public health departments since 1994. Those familiar with the new methodology say the more accurate epidemiological data probably won’t be portrayed by the CDC as a major resurgence in overall incidence, but rather will dramatize how little progress has been made in preventing the spread of HIV among adults, particularly within at-risk populations. “Most likely it is just an upward adjustment and a more accurate estimate of what has been occurring in the last decade,” said Walt Senterfitt, a California epidemiologist involved with Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP), a national alliance of prevention activists.

Brush Fires are more of an environmental problem than you think

This map from Science magazine shows the frequency and extent of fires over 7 years in sub-Saharan Africa. Data came from Europe's SPOT satellite, which registers how burning of vegetation changes the reflectance of Earth's surface. The majority of fires on the planet are lit by humans for clearing land, burning crop stubble, scaring up game, and introducing ash for fertilizer. Around the world, up to 4.5 million square kilometers of vegetation--an area larger than India--burn every year,

Fed Funding Fails for Fusion

According to Science magazine, "this week, DOE terminated the National Compact Stellarator Experiment (NCSX) at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in New Jersey. The not-yet-completed reactor would have been one of four large "magnetic confinement" reactors in the United States.......Had it been completed, the NCSX might have served as the prototype for the next great fusion experiment to come after ITER, the $12 billion machine that will be built in Cadarache, France..... The cancellation of the NCSX strikes a body blow to the United States's domestic fusion program.......The cut intensifies the uncertainty already facing plasma physicists. Over the past decade, DOE's budget for fusion research has stagnated at $300 million, and since the United States rejoined the ITER collaboration in 2003, researchers have fretted that money for smaller experiments at home might be siphoned off to pay for the nation's commitment overseas. (This year, however, the U.S. Congress zeroed out a scheduled $149 million contribution to ITER and bumped up the budget for running domestic facilities to $93.5 million, $6 million more than DOE had requested.)"

I would think even the White House and the Congress should be aware by now that there is a long term energy problem, and that research on new sources of energy should be given high priority. Fusion energy offers immense potential over the long term. Not only does fusion generate huge amounts of energy per unit weight, there is a huge amount of heavy hydrogen around (the heavy isotopes of hydrogen are used to fuel the fusion reaction). Moreover fusion generation of electrical power would be expected to be relatively environmentally benign since it should not generate nuclear waste as do the fission reactors.

Currently the generation of electrical power from fossil fuel is the major source of greenhouse gases. Electification drove economic growth in developed nations in the industrial age, and can be expected to drive industrial development in the developing world in this century. If coal and oil plants are used to generate the needed electricity, global warming will be a huge problem, one that could be reduced by a timely development of fusion fueled electrical generation.

Moreover, we could move to a hydrogen economy with abundant electrical power fueled by fusion, substituting electrical power and/or hydrogen chemical power in our transportation system for fossil fuels, making transportation possible without greenhouse gas emissions.

With abundant electrical power, we could also overcome the coming shortage of fresh water, pumping water to where it is needed, and desalting as much sea water as might be required to complement the available fresh water resources.

The countries that gain a competitive advantage in the technology for fusion will eventually be expected not only to benefit from the domestic application of the technology to meet domestic needs, but also to gain an important advantage in the global market for energy systems.

Cutting back on fusion energy research funding seems really bone-headed. Of course, it is being done as a response to the huge bill for the war in Iraq and the coming economic crisis. Still, there must be better places to make the needed cuts in the federal budget.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"How the Web Was Won"


Description: "Fifty years ago, in response to the surprise Soviet launch of Sputnik, the U.S. military set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency. It would become the cradle of connectivity, spawning the era of Google and YouTube, of Amazon and Facebook, of the Drudge Report and the Obama campaign. Each breakthrough—network protocols, hypertext, the World Wide Web, the browser—inspired another as narrow-tied engineers, long-haired hackers, and other visionaries built the foundations for a world-changing technology. Keenan Mayo and Peter Newcomb let the people who made it happen tell the story."

Comment: This is a very interesting article, very well selected from a large number of interviews with people who make major contributions to the development of the Internet. A few things stand out. First, the Internet has had an amazingly great inpact in a very short time. The first browser, which make the World Wide Web the second killer ap after email, was only created 15 years ago. Second, the decisions that resulted in the Internet and World Wide Web protocols to be a common property, and the openness of the Internet were crucially important. Of course, if there had not been an installed infrastructure of personal computers and telecommunications, the Internet could not have been so important so quickly, I was also impressed by how many of the key innovations came out of universities and how many came out of entrepreneurial types from the financial sector. JAD

Senate Unveils New Reports on Pre War Intelligence and its Use

I quote from Senator Jay Rockefeller's release describing the reports.

The Committee’s report cites several conclusions in which the Administration’s public statements were NOT supported by the intelligence. They include:
  • Statements and implications by the President and Secretary of State suggesting that Iraq and al-Qa’ida had a partnership, or that Iraq had provided al-Qa’ida with weapons training, were not substantiated by the intelligence.
  • Statements by the President and the Vice President indicating that Saddam Hussein was prepared to give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups for attacks against the United States were contradicted by available intelligence information.
  • Statements by President Bush and Vice President Cheney regarding the postwar situation in Iraq, in terms of the political, security, and economic, did not reflect the concerns and uncertainties expressed in the intelligence products.
  • Statements by the President and Vice President prior to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq’s chemical weapons production capability and activities did not reflect the intelligence community’s uncertainties as to whether such production was ongoing.
  • The Secretary of Defense’s statement that the Iraqi government operated underground WMD facilities that were not vulnerable to conventional airstrikes because they were underground and deeply buried was not substantiated by available intelligence information.
  • The Intelligence Community did not confirm that Muhammad Atta met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in 2001 as the Vice President repeatedly claimed.


The (second) report found that the clandestine meetings between Pentagon officials and Iranians in Rome and Paris were inappropriate and mishandled from beginning to end. Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz failed to keep the Intelligence Community and the State Department appropriately informed about the meetings. The involvement of Manucher Ghobanifer and Michael Ledeen in the meetings was inappropriate. Potentially important information collected during the meetings was withheld from intelligence agencies by Pentagon officials. Finally, senior Defense Department officials cut short internal investigations of the meetings and failed to implement the recommendations of their own counterintelligence experts.

Comment: Jon Stewart on the Daily Show pointed out the failure of the media to cover a major Congressional report documenting the failures of the Bush administration to level with the public on the reasons for going to war. Even he did not cover the blast leveled by the Senate on the intelligence procedures used by the DOD under the Bush administration. Arghhhhh! JAD